Punjabis Without Punjabi

By Ishtiaq Ahmed
The News, 5/24/2008

For quite some time now reference is being made on both Pakistani and Indian Punjabi Internet networks to a UNESCO report that allegedly predicts that in the next 50 years the Punjabi language will become extinct. I have tried in vain to get hold of the report to make sure it is not a hoax. My dear friend, Sardar Gobind Tukhral, has assured me that some such a report did appear, which warned that many languages were fast disappearing. Languages threatened with extinction are spoken by miniscule tribes whose members are dying out or being assimilated into the mainstream. However, this explanation cannot apply to Punjabi.

Demography and power -- political, economic and military -- do not suggest that the Punjabis are by any means a weak nationality or ethnicity. Consider the fact that some 100-120 million human beings can be classified as ethnic Punjabis. Punjabi is an Indo-Iranian language within the larger family of Indo-European languages. The Punjabi people are a mixture of perhaps one of the most varied ethnic pool in the world, as Punjab has been receiving waves and waves of people entering the subcontinent from the north-western mountain passes, as well as smaller movements from the south and east of the subcontinent towards this region.

The current breakdown of the Punjabi people is roughly like this: Eighty million Punjabis live mainly in Pakistan's western Punjab and constitute 55 percent of its total population; 30 million in India, mainly in Indian eastern Punjab but with a strong presence in Haryana and the greater Delhi region. Roughly, that translates to three percent of the total Indian population. Some 10 million are dispersed outside the Indian subcontinent, with strong presence in Britain, North America, Southeast Asia (nearly 130,000 Sikhs in Malaysia alone) and the Middle East. In terms of religious affiliation, some 54 percent are Muslims, 29 percent Hindus and 14 percent Sikhs. A three-percent minority is Christian.

With regard to power, the situation is even more dramatic. Pakistan is virtually a Punjabi state in terms of political, military and, now, even economic power. On the other hand, while in India Punjabis are a small minority they are one of the most prosperous nationalities, East Punjab being one of the top three big states enjoying the highest per capita income. The Indian military has a disproportionately larger number of Punjabis, especially among officers.

Three Indian prime ministers -- Gulzari Lal Nanda, Inder Kumar Gujral and Dr Manmohan Singh -- can be classified as bona fide Punjabis, while the mother of Jawarhal Lal Nehru was not only a Punjabi but from Lahore. Two Nobel Prize winners have been Punjabis: Professor Hargobind Khorana from India and Professor Abdus Salam from Pakistan. When it comes to Bollywood and Lollywood as well as cricket and other sports, Punjabis are conspicuous in all these branches of public life. Given such favourable data, how do we explain the rapid decline of the Punjabi language?

We need to understand this in terms of both historical and contemporary contexts. With regard to the historical explanation, it is to be noted that Punjabi never attained the status of state language of a sovereign state at any point in time and remained the language of the common people. However, between the 16th and first half of the 19th century Punjabi culture flourished as the Sikh Gurus, Muslim sufis and the Hindu bhagtis ventilated their anti-establishment messages in a strong Punjabi idiom. However, when the only son of the soil, Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1799-1839), founded a kingdom in this region, official communications continued to be conducted in Persian.

After the annexation of Punjab by the British in 1849, they decided to introduce Urdu as the state language as it was already in use in other territories under British control. It was also felt that urban Punjabi was a close kin of Urdu and Hindi. This is, of course, true and there is no reason not to acknowledge this affinity. In any case, Punjabi never received the patronage of the state. The first modern Punjabi dictionary was produced in the mid-19th century by Christian missionaries based in Ludhiana.

The first half of the 20th century found the communal virus infecting Punjabi identity. Ironically, the first provocation came from the Sikhs, when Bhai Vir Singh (1872-1957) began to insist that the Punjabi language was the exclusive preserve of the Sikhs. Not surprisingly, both Hindus and Muslims who had strong cultural links with the rest of India began to assert that their "mother tongue" was Hindi and Urdu, respectively. Such communalisation culminated in the partition of India in 1947, which in reality was the partition of Punjab and Bengal. The partition of Punjab took place over the bodies of 800,000 to 1,000,000 Punjabis. The veteran Indian journalist Rajinder Puri captured the agony of the Punjabis in the following words:

"After partition the Punjabis disappeared. In West Punjab they became Pakistanis. In East Punjab they became Hindus and Sikhs. They also became Akalis and Congressmen, Arya Samajists and Jan Sanghis. Never Punjabis."

This was written in 1985. One can expand on this process of fission and say that the Pakistani Muslim Punjabis became Sunnis, Shias and Ahmadis, and from time to time one hears also about them becoming Saraiki-speakers and Potohari-speakers in opposition to the Lahori-speaking Punjabis, while in India, besides the Hindu-Sikh distinction, the Sikhs went on to distinguish themselves as Khalsas and other sects.

In Pakistani Punjab, Punjabi continued to be degraded as an inferior language, and if ever a case of self-inflicted cultural suicide, or rather genocide is to be taken up by the Security Council (under the UN Convention on Genocide cultural genocide is considered a major crime against humanity), it will be the sui generis mistreatment by the Punjabi ruling elites of Pakistan of their own mother tongue. The situation is better in Indian Punjab because Sikh identity is inseparable from the Punjabi language and Punjabi is the official language of that province, but Hindi and English are encroaching upon Punjabi as Sikh peasants become urban dwellers and develop unorthodox lifestyles.

In the next article we will review what can be done to restore Punjabi to its proper status among the living languages of the world. To fight the uphill battle for Punjabi we would need the help of all Punjabis.

The writer is a professor of political science and a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), National University of Singapore. Email: isasia@nus.edu.sg